Sheriff Clyde Biggs:

Clyde Emerson Biggs was Knox County Sheriff from 1937 to 1941, and participated in a late night gun battle near Mt. Liberty in January of 1938. He was grazed by a bullet on his head, but succeeded in bringing down his opponent.

MOUNT LIBERTY -- Ah, for the good old days, when troubled teenagers didn't commit armed robbery. When those days were, exactly, I don't know.

It was certainly sometime before 1938, because Saturday night, Jan. 15, 1938, a pair of teens from Galena did exactly that. Edsel Watts, 19, and Walter Lehman, 17, robbed a grocery store in Delaware County, netting a whopping $47 haul. They fled south to Columbus and spent some of the money, partying.

Deciding later that night that they'd better get on down the road, Watts and Lehman headed northeast on Ohio 3, which brought them into Knox County. One thing to keep in mind before embarking on a criminal career is vehicle maintenance, but these boys did no such thing. As they were flying up the highway past Centerburg, they suffered a tire blowout.

Mount Liberty:

This vintage postcard image presents Mount Liberty in the winter time, as it may very well have been during the crime in this article, which took place in January of 1938.

Wrestling the car to the side of the road, Watts discovered that he had no spare to replace the blown tire. His only option was to either get a repair or another tire, and neither option looked promising late on a Saturday night turning into a quiet Sunday morning.

Walking up the highway, they flagged down a northbound bus and asked for passage to the nearest town. As the bus approached the few lights of tiny Mount Liberty, the pair saw Clarence McLarnan's gas station, with connected residence, and asked the bus driver to drop them there. The bus quickly headed off into the night.

Pounding on the doors and windows, the boys were finally able to rouse McLarnan and ask for his services. For obvious reasons, McLarnan refused to open shop in the middle of the night for a couple of rowdy boys, no matter their misfortune. This resulted in a furious argument, capped by Watts kicking out one of McLarnan's windows and blindly firing two shots into the house with his handgun.

The boys fled up Ohio 3, and McLarnan immediately got on the phone to the Knox County Sheriff Department.

Edsel Watts grave:

Gunman Edsel Watts was buried in the family plot in the cemetery at Galena, in Delaware County.

In moments, Sheriff Clyde Biggs and his deputy Oliver Walker were in a patrol car headed southwest out of Mount Vernon. They soon found the two young men walking alongside the road. Biggs quickly stopped the car, stepped out and said, “This is the Law. Put up your hands!”

Instead, Watts drew his small handgun and started firing while Lehman jumped into the ditch. Sheriff Biggs was grazed on the scalp by a bullet and Deputy Walker was hit with a minor flesh wound. Both officers continued shooting until they brought down Watts with a wound to the abdomen. Lehman was grazed by a shot as well.

The deputy was hospitalized briefly for his wound, but the robber had taken a direct shot to the stomach and did not survive the night.

Information about Edsel Watts is scarce. It appears that he was the son of a Singer Sewing Machine salesman, who kept his family moving from area to area, perhaps robbing the boy of a stable foundation for development, though the family did finally settle down permanently in Galena. His death was reported with shock in Marysville, where the Wattses had briefly lived in 1933, and where Edsel was known as a bright and personable youth.

Lehman is easier to trace, as he survived the incident and lived a much longer life. Walter Ivan Lehman was born in Delaware, Ohio, in 1921 to Hubert and Mary Etta (Bennett) Lehman. The spree with Watts was not his first brush with the law, as Lehman was already on probation for having broken into the school in Galena and stolen money and candy.

A follow up report quotes Lehman as saying that he blamed “liquor and dope” for causing he and his friend to get up the nerve to hold up the grocery store in Delaware. What exactly the “dope” was isn't clear. Lehman said only that Watts provided the dope, which he kept in a small vial from which he periodically poured a few drops into their liquor as they drank.

Did the death of his friend reform Lehman? A later record shows him in the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield in 1940, but that could actually be his sentence for the 1938 incident. He does indeed seem to have settled down in later life. A year after his stint in the Reformatory, Lehman filled out his World War II draft card in Galena and listed himself as living with his parents and working on their farm.

Later on, he got married. For a time, in the late 1970s, he and his wife even lived on Simmons Church Road, near Centerburg, and thus not far from the site of the gun battle. What thoughts must have gone through his head any time he drove up Route 3 toward Mount Vernon and passed the spot?

Later, Lehman lived in Thornville, Millersport, and finally Columbus, where he passed away in the hospital in 1991.

I could be wrong, but I'd guess Walter Lehman wasn't a big fan of talking about the good old days, for his old days were violent and unhappy. I hope for his sake his life improved. Deputy Walker soon recovered from his injury, and Clyde Biggs continued as Knox County Sheriff until 1941.

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